It’s a sweet thought, sure, but one that most would say is overly simplistic and, ultimately, little more than a nice sentiment. In fact, if we’re being honest, that kind of schmaltzy talk is actually pretty damn naïve.
Except that it isn’t. I mean, look where not being naïve got Jenny. Or Lieutenant Dan.
Watching Forrest Gump again – 25 years after its initial release, when it came out of nowhere to take the country by storm – it became clear to me (and humbling) that its title character is not someone to pity, laugh at, or affectionately dismiss. Forrest Gump is someone to genuinely aspire to be.
I’ll examine that in a moment (and, really, for the bulk of this reflection), but first it’s important to remember what a phenomenon this movie was. Opening to an impressive $24.5 million on July 6, 1994, this seemingly small story became a runaway sensation, tapping into the American zeitgeist like few (if any) could have imagined.
In its second weekend it would take in another $24 million, its third $21 million, and for the next two-and-a-half months Forrest Gump would shift back-and-forth between the #1 and #2 spot at the box office (only dipping to #3 once).
It no doubt benefited from Tom Hanks’s 1993.
Between that summer’s Sleepless In Seattle and his Academy Award-winning turn at year’s end in Philadelphia (capped by a moving Oscar speech), Hanks went from being a popular comic actor to this generation’s Jimmy Stewart. Forrest Gump affirmed and completed that transformation as Hanks came to embody decency itself. Through him and his second-consecutive Oscar-winning performance, Forrest Gump seemed to heal – even if only for the duration of its run time – the broken American soul it explored.
The film rode a wave of deep affection that earned Gump six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Actor, Director (for Robert Zemeckis, the populist helmer of Back to the Future and other hits), and Adapted Screenplay. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction may have been the more inventive and groundbreaking film of that year, but Forrest Gump was Hollywood at its best, and most admirable.
It still is, a quarter-century on, and – as I expressed in the open – even more aspirational now. Detractors see a movie that’s maudlin and manipulative but I see the exact opposite. Forrest Gump actually challenges our conventional approach to the world rather than pandering to it. It’s subversive in an increasingly cynical world.
But to “be” like Forrest is actually lot harder than it may seem, and that’s because inherently, within our human condition, we’re all a lot closer to being like Jenny than we are Forrest.
We run from our issues, mask them beneath vice or distraction, or avoid and ignore them through attempts (sometimes hallow ones) at giving our lives purpose, as commendable as that may be. Like Jenny, we may appreciate Forrest’s simple outlook but we also discount it. It’s adorable, but it’s not realistic.
That’s a lie, but one that many people (like Jenny) don’t realize until it’s too late.
For 25 years, many people have entered the movie essentially like Jenny, jaded and world-weary. And like her, they’ve been drawn to Forrest’s innate goodness, but it seems impractical, unattainable. The film, however, shows us the path toward it.
To go from the damaged Jenny that we are to become the Forrest ideal we long to be, we have to bravely embark on a soul-searching journey like Lieutenant Dan’s. We have to face our broken dreams, our broken identities, and our broken bodies (and possibly even God Himself). The path is hard and it’s scary but, ultimately, it’s liberating.
It’ll probably get you mocked and laughed at, too. To be like Forrest comes with a price.
Forrest, who remains wholesome as he treks through the rebellious shifts of the 1960s and 70s counterculture, has now come full circle to become countercultural. Some critics, reflecting on the film’s anniversary through today’s standards (like here and here), even suggest a sober re-evaluation of the movie for its “scary implications.” To many of its backlashers, Forrest Gump has become worse than maudlin; it’s dangerous.
Leaving aside the provocative hot take that this beloved classic somehow sends a message that “hard questions [about serious issues] don’t matter” (what a huge misread), it’s the very nature of Forrest himself that has no place in today’s post-modern enlightenment.
Being like Forrest requires an innocence that most of us would be too embarrassed to live out. We’ve culturally evolved past wholesomeness, it seems, and the times demand that we abandon decorum. Protest, confrontation, scorn, and (when necessary) ostracization are the only acceptable moral positions.
The modern instinct to disdain (and even warn against) Forrest’s childlike approach to the world is born out of our own Pharisaical arrogance (re: “God, I appreciate Forrest, and he’s even charming, but thank you I’m not as stupid as he is.”).
The ongoing ascent to intellectualism as our highest virtue (and its use as a social media cudgel) has made our hearts toxic. We are in a bad place, and we need to be liberated from the existential cynicism of our own sophistication. We’ve always need that, I guess, but perhaps now more than ever.
Twenty-five years ago, that’s exactly what Forrest Gump did.
It transcended a generation’s most bitter divide by giving us a man who lived in such a way that he never became corrupted by that divide, by that bitterness, even as he had a front row seat to its tumultuous dynamics. More than anything – more than the humor, nostalgia, or clever, quotable aphorisms – that’s why Forrest Gump struck a chord. It’s why it still does.
Not that those more obvious elements should be marginalized.
The core narrative structure – of a low IQ redneck who nobly bumbles his way through the most important events of the mid-to-late 20th Century – was an inspired construct that resonated. It allowed audiences to laugh, cry, get angry, grieve, and wax wistful over the American experience.
There’s something in the way that Zemeckis framed and filtered it all, through Forrest, that caused the film to embody the soul of America itself. Deeper still, people were drawn to Forrest’s innocence.
But more to the point, about this notion that Forrest was “bumbling”: yes, it’s the most obvious take, but I’d suggest that it’s actually a false premise. It presupposes that how Forrest perceives the world is limited, inadequate, problematic, or oblivious.
That view fundamentally misunderstands Forrest and, more broadly, people with lower intellects. That misunderstanding is rooted in our prejudice for chic intellecutal elitism. and the affirmation that virtue-signaling it brings.
Forrest Gump didn’t bumble. Rather, within his own unique sense of self that led to his own self-agency, he didn’t judge. On the contrary he honored people, his promises to them (whether spoken or relationally-implicit) and, at the most harrowing times, showed valor.
Intellect, urbanity, and worldliness are our contemporary idols, but they also make us condescending assholes. Being simple-minded, however, doesn’t. In fact, it nurtures just the opposite.
Forrest saw things and people as they were, right there, in the moment. Critics would argue, then, that he lacked a necessary discernment. That’s also false. Forrest does discern, but his perception is of a different sort. He never saw or factored in race, disability, or disease (or the evolving narratives we attach to them). He saw past resentment, hostility, and even personal rejection. It would never have dawned on him to require an ideological litmus test.
I’d contend, too, that his discernment is fundamentally more accurate because it’s based on actions and their effects, not biased parameters that can cause us to skew what’s actually happening or even compromise our convictions.
None of this turned Forrest a sucker, either. He became angry at times, even confrontational, but in moments when people (like Jenny) were being ridiculed, harmed, or were in danger, never because of some sociopolitical dogma.
Forrest’s so-called naiveté doesn’t lack moral clarity. It’s not ignorant. It displays wisdom, restraint, generosity, and grace, along with necessary action, but the kind that our current reasoning has contempt for.
Forrest may not be a smart man, as he confessed to Jenny, but he knows what love is. I suspect he does more than most.
That proves itself out, actually, when later in the film Forrest starts to run across the country, literally coast-to-coast, back-and-forth, seemingly without end. As he does he becomes a cultural icon, a Rorschach figure for an entire generation that’s disaffected and lost. To them, Forrest must have somehow “figured it all out.”
He had, but not in the way they were wanting because they’re expecting philosophical answers to be concrete. Ultimately, those answers (or even scientifc ones) do not resolve the mysteries of life. Only experience, embarked on with humility and humanity, can begin to provide that.
One of Forrest Gump’s most enduring traits is how quotable it is, but the most popular sayings don’t necessarily capture the film’s essence or what, to my mind, actually makes it profound. But these two do:
- “Mama always said dying was a part of life. I sure wish it wasn’t.”
- “My mama always told me that miracles happen every day. Some people don’t think so, but they do.”
Those may not be the most famous quotes from the Forrest Gump repertoire but, from the first’s poignant despair to the second’s belief in something bigger, they beautifully sum up the film’s emotional and thematic scope. (The second also undercuts the notion that the film is subversively about “dumb luck” nihilism; that’s not what miracles are.)
The essence of those two feelings come together in the film’s recurring reunions. As Forrest travels the nation and the world, taking him from his Alabama small town, he’s also taken away from the most important people in his life: Jenny, Lt. Dan, and his mama.
But as his story unfolds across decades, it brings him back to these people, and they to him. These reunions (on the Washington Mall, in the Louisiana bayou, back home, and more) all pack a distinct power, becoming more emotional with each progressive one. They’re the kind of moments (along with other magical ones, like when young Forrest runs for the first time, which still gives me chills) that only the movies can give us.
The deep connection struck within those reunions tapped into something primal that we all hunger for, and that’s another reason why Forrest Gump became such a phenomenon. It came on the scene just as the age of irony was starting to peak. Sincerity was antiquated, cheesy, and laughable. It was completely uncool. Then came along Forrest Gump, with its unassuming, guileless hero who was anything but ironic, and that’s exactly what the nation’s soul needed. It’s what we desperately longed for.
It’s what our soul needs again. Forrest Gump can show us a different way than the destructive path that we’re on. It’s through how countercultural he is.
Forrest Gump isn’t woke. He’s pure. I’d rather be pure.
And that’s all I have to say about that.